The Royals Are Obsessed with Africa—Here's Why That's Problematic
Soon after they marry on May 19, Prince Harry and his Hollywood bride, Meghan Markle, will jet off to the African country of Namibia—a desert nation of scarlet sand dunes and ice-white beaches—for their honeymoon.
They follow Harry’s older brother, William, who in 2011 whisked his new bride, Kate, to the coconut-strewn African island republic of the Seychelles for their honeymoon, after he surprised her six months earlier with a sapphire engagement ring in a log hut beneath Mount Kenya. And both men embrace the tradition of their grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, who in 1952 found out that she would become Great Britain’s ruler while vacationing in another hut built into the forest around Mount Kenya. Her private safari warden scribbled the amazing tale in the lodge’s guestbook, memorializing it as the day the globe finally learned that fairytales really do come true: “For the first time in the history of the world,” he wrote, “a young girl climbed into a tree one day a princess [and] climbed down from the tree next day a Queen.”
The royals—normally known for curtsies, palace guards in stiff bearskin hats, and banquets whose china takes eight men three weeks to polish—have another, somewhat less-discussed tradition: a long, unusual relationship with what the explorer Henry Stanley called the “Dark Continent.”
It’s been their yang to Buckingham Palace’s yin, the place where they could live out dreams of striding wild, as-yet-undiscovered worlds and romping among rhinoceroses. A place they could feel “free,” even if the locals weren’t. Describing Queen Elizabeth’s 1947 21st-birthday tour of South Africa and Zimbabwe (then called Rhodesia for the notorious British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes), a South African historian said the trip was an “escape from her everyday life.”
Royal life, and Great Britain, has changed since 1947. Princess Diana made the monarchy modern—and tabloid fodder. Prince William threw out the custom to marry another royal and conducted a thoroughly millennial romance with a college mate, flirting during a “foam fight” held in the campus square. Harry’s union with Markle, the 36-year-old star of the American cable series Suits, is meant to mark a final break with the royal line’s stodgy and prejudice-bound white lineage tradition (though Markle may not actually be the first biracial royal). While some Brits have turned up their noses at the idea of a Hollywood-famous, biracial divorcee in the monarchy—“You can’t imagine actually bowing or curtseying her, can you?” one writer asked in the magazine The Spectator, painting Markle’s “glossy” celebrity as crass—most have cheered. Oddly, but satisfyingly for royal fans, it seems as though Harry and the royals have found themselves at the leading edge of Britain’s advancing approach to diversity and softening customs, even perhaps ahead of the ambivalent populace that voted for Brexit.
But does their enduring romance with Africa undermine that? Prince William spent part of his “gap year” after high school in Africa, reportedly working on animal conservation. Harry followed him there, founding a charity for children affected by HIV-AIDS in the tiny mountain nation of Lesotho and, after quitting the military in 2015, helping to relocate hundreds of threatened Malawian elephants to a game park. It’s a great legacy. And to the world, it’s presented as evidence of the royal boys’ daring, world-embracing nature.
But their romance with Africa also has a dark side. Right after Diana died in 1997, Prince Charles, Harry and William’s dad, whisked the boys to the Dark Continent. It was a place for them to hide: “We were going to Africa to get away from it all,” Harry has said. But that view might be the most throwback and problematic of the princes’ proclivities—and a potent if unintended weapon in keeping Africa, the continent expected to grow the most in population this century, lodged firmly in the past in the West’s imagination.
It’s instructive to look at where the royals go in Africa. William favors Kenya, Botswana, and South Africa; Harry, the tiny Lesotho and the sparsely inhabited Namibia and Botswana, where he took Markle on a tent-camping trip last year. (All of these but Namibia, by the way, are former British colonies.) These nations are by no means representative of the continent. None are among the most populous African countries. Kenya is unusually rural; 75 percent of its population remains in the countryside, for now bucking Africa’s urbanization trend. Namibia is one of the least densely populated sovereign nation on earth. Unlike West African countries like Mali and Sierra Leone, all of the princes’ favorite African destinations rank in the bottom sixth tier of nations for income inequality, with staggering gaps between the rich and the poor.
What does this mean? It means an Africa where urban spaces—which are the continent’s future—can easily be ignored in favor of tony lodges that cater to the super-rich in a landscape dotted with pleasing animals but relatively devoid of actual African people.
That’s not all on the princes—the press has chosen to pay far less attention to their goodwill trips than to their escapist vacations. But the young princes’ visits that are more accessible to paparazzi convey an Africa nearly untouched by change and modernity: wide-open vistas, peopleless beaches, and sweeping mountaintop views into forests where you can imagine yourself anyone you’d like to be, a landscape not of reality but of the imagination. A British documentary of the Queen’s 1947 tour declared Africa a place of “strange magic” where “the influence of … civilization is only superficial,” where Zulus dressed in animal skins concluded a dance for the Queen with an appropriate “gesture of submission.” The non-royal Danish writer Karen Blixen romanticized Africa in 1937: “The Cicada sing an endless song in the long grass, smells run along the earth, and falling stars run over the sky … You are the privileged person to whom everything is taken.”
Brits and Europeans, often of lower classes, moved to the African colonies in the first half of the 20th century to get away from population growth and class struggles on their own continent and make themselves the little royals they could never be in Europe, with servants, undisturbed views of natural majesty, and a feeling of freedom. Africa is now, weirdly, the place where the actual royals go to still feel like kings—instead of the far less politically powerful, essentially ordinary tabloid celebs they have become.
William told the British press he felt a sense of relief in Africa. It is where, he said, he can be “who I am.” Did he mean an ordinary person, a prince, or both?
The “real” Namibia has very little in common with the settings where Harry and Meghan will likely spend their honeymoon. A columnist in the New Era newspaper there called it a “bipolar nation.” With ranches and exclusive hunting lodges, the vast majority of Namibia’s commercially used land remains owned by a few thousand white people and foreigners while at least 34 percent of the population is unemployed, troubled by alcoholism, or HIV-positive. When Germany abandoned its colonial government there, it left Namibia a dependent, war-scarred satellite of apartheid South Africa in the second part of the 20th century. Those wounds endure. “Go to the capital, Windhoek, or Swakopmund, the main sea resort, and you could be forgiven for believing you were in a rich, little European town,” the Economist recently reported. “But drive a bit further out and you find overcrowded black townships and beyond them the sprawling shanty towns where the dirt-poor live in leaky corrugated-iron shacks. It is much the same elsewhere in Africa, but in Namibia the difference is more extreme.”
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The more unequal the society, the more people with money—like, say, a royal—can escape the worst parts to the best. Meanwhile, much of Kenya is nothing like the landscape of Masai warriors and African trees where William proposed to Kate, where the lodge they chose advertises itself as a place where “an elephant provides your alarm call in the morning, you can game view straight from your private veranda, and nothing else really matters.” The rest of Kenya, actually, matters: Construction in its capital Nairobi is booming, a new world-class port is in the works, and in 2015 Slate declared the capital one of the world’s most up-and-coming tech hubs.
This is Africa: Left behind by colonialism, surging forward at the same time. And it’s little like the Africa portrayed by the headlines trailing the princes. In the images disseminated of them in Africa, there are no urban scooter shots like there would be in a trip to Paris, nothing whizzy or modern.
Prince Harry’s staff lambasted British tabs for racist coverage of Markle’s black family. “Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton!,” The Daily Mail wrote last year. It could be said that the royals’ portrayal of Africa still partakes of a subtler, harder-to-root-out kind of racism. This is the racism that finds it difficult to love the real, complicated, post-colonial Africa—a place both sadly troubled by its past and embracing a kind of change that may completely erase what first drew white princes and princesses to the continent. Prince William has said he decorates his kids’ rooms with toy elephants so they can feel “in the bush.” The bush isn’t all of Africa anymore, if it ever was—that version of Africa doesn’t, and can’t, exist without the other.
British princes and princesses may no longer hold empires in Africa. But they do still have the power to shape how it’s perceived. As the first royal-to-be to publicly claim descent, in part, from slaves from Africa, Markle is already boosting the acceptance of men and women of different ethnic backgrounds in positions of prominence. Seventy percent of Britons told pollsters they approved of a royal marrying a person “of a different ethnicity,” a result touted in the British press as a pleasant and relieving surprise. “It is difficult to overstate how important it is to have a member of the royal family” who is biracial, the historian Ted Powell told The Observer, calling it “hugely positive for Britain, particularly in the wake of Brexit [and] the controversies of immigration policy.”
Will that have any effect on the way Africa itself is showcased by the royals and the press that trails them? Maybe.
In the years since William proposed to Kate in rural Kenya, Kenya’s tourism board has aired several ads on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s TV station where the only black people were wearing a tribal dress that few native Kenyans wear anymore. (The ads channeled the Africa of Prince William’s bizarrely colonial African-themed 21st birthday party, where costumes included a cannibal, Tarzan, and a banana.) South Africa’s tourism board also released an ad targeting British tourists that, among its dozen images of the nation, amazingly included not one single black person.
It would be nice to see pics of Harry and Meghan’s royal honeymoon that acknowledges Africa’s full reality. But we’ll see how many fairytales can come true on one trip.